On Thursday afternoons, elves and hobgoblins take over the community room of Spuyten Duyvil Library.
Sometimes there are tieflings and kobolds, too. Maybe a basilisk on a good day.
For the past year or so, a devoted group of Dungeons and Dragons players have toted their lucky dice and character sheets to the West 235th Street branch to participate in a wildly popular gaming group. Most players are students at the nearby Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy, but anyone’s welcome.
“It’s something that’s really engaged the kids who come here,” young adult librarian Agneiszka Chen said.
It all started when RKA student Emile Swartz got a Dungeons and Dragons starter set for Christmas, according to his stepmother, Lara Dua-Swartz.
“We got it for him and he didn’t have anyone to play with, so the whole family decided to learn,” she said. “So we learned to play and we were like, ‘This is rad.’ We got super into it.”
Dungeons and Dragons doesn’t require expensive store-bought electronics. All players need are a pencil, an assortment of polyhedral dice, and perhaps the most sophisticated gaming equipment in the known universe: the human imagination.
Players create characters with unique abilities, histories and personalities. The game encourages players to get into the role of their character and consider what music or food an elf mage prefers compared to her orc barbarian companion.
The game is lead by the dungeon master, who controls the game’s action and tells the story of the characters’ surroundings. Players imagine themselves in the haunted forest or dank oubliette their dungeon master describes. They ask what their character can sense. Is there a strange smell? What can the character hear? Is it hot and humid or chilly?
The dungeon master also interprets the rules, rolls dice to determine the chance an action will occur, and plays the people and things the player characters interact with throughout the game.
Dua-Swartz serves as dungeon master for the table of the group’s youngest and oldest players. Chen and branch senior librarian Josh Soule proudly represent the adults who can still let their imaginations transport them to mythical kingdoms. A standoff between Soule’s sword-wielding fighter and Dua-Swartz’s non-player character resulted in a brief attempt for both parties to keep serious faces during an exchange of medieval-sounding insults.
“This is new for me,” said Chen, who plays alongside her daughter, Hannah. “I never played it back home in Poland. We had our own board games growing up. With Dungeons and Dragons, the first time I played was after watching a few of the games. And then Lara appeared a year and a half ago. She got me hooked.”
The Swartz family got so into Dungeons and Dragons, they began writing their own campaigns, drawing characters, and making complicated maps, Dua-Swartz said.
“Then Emile needed community service for school, and I said, ‘Why don’t we start a D&D club that Emile could run?’” she said.
Emile, dungeon master of the older students’ campaign, recruited his classmates to join. Even though none had played Dungeons and Dragons before, they took to it immediately, and the weekly sessions became an unmissable event for the boisterous party of eight.
Since the campaign started, Emile has led them through a daring rescue mission set in an abandoned mine. Once in a while, the players stopped horsing around and focused long enough to cast some spells or fight enchanted skeletons.
“As you can probably tell, we don’t get much done, but we have fun doing it,” Raynah Howard said.
She and a few other players are going off to their respective high schools. The group takes the summer off, and when they reconvene in the fall, several of their party members won’t return.
“I’ll miss it because here I get to play a really fun game with my friends,” Giles Epner said.
The game involves a lot of imagining the setting, he said, and how to move around inside this imaginary world. Playing means thinking about an abstract world inhabited by imaginary people controlled by the circle of friends.
“It helps me understand my friends better,” he said.
“I’ve actually been here since the beginning,” Kevin Sylvin said.
“I’m really going to miss D&D. It’s been really fun playing with them every week, and I’m really going to miss this.”
What started as a whim and a way to recruit more players has grown into a community, Dua-Swartz said.
“It’s really this place that kids can come and explore their creativity and hang out,” she said. “In a world where everybody’s always got their face in a screen, the fact that they will come here and sit and use their imagination for two hours is great.”